Eric Standridge is a historian and author who focuses on Oklahoma's history, with an emphasis on LeFlore County and Poteau.
Historic Flooding of the Poteau River
Prior to the 1946 Wister Lake Project, the Poteau River has had a history of major flooding throughout the region.
Some of the earliest recorded stories go back to the mid-1800s. After the Civil War ended in 1865, southeast Oklahoma became known as "Little Dixie". Confederate veterans flocked here to escape repercussions from the United States. As the land was then known as Indian Territory, the United States didn't have any real authority in the territory.
To get to Indian Territory, most had to cross the Poteau River. Stories from those times show how treacherous the Poteau River was, especially during Spring and Fall. The river was known to be wild and flowing rapidly enough to "dislodge" a man from his horse.
In the 1880s, Buck Davis petitioned Congress to establish a ferry service across the Poteau. This was one of the first measures taken to try to control the river. This ferry was located where the old highway crossing is today.
By the 1900s, it was evident that something had to be done. The first bridge was constructed over the Poteau River using Davis' original ferry landing.
While the bridge made travel over the Poteau River safer, it didn't do anything to curb the flooding. During this time, the area was still sparsely populated so most residents simply dealt with the floods when they happened.
By the 1920s, however, this was a different story. Poteau, Wister, and Heavener had become thriving towns with significant populations. The Poteau River was far enough away from both Poteau and Heavener that those towns were not affected much. Wister, on the other hand, was much closer to the river and was nearly surrounded by tributaries of the Poteau River.
When the river flooded, it caused these tributaries to back up as well. One such flood created havoc in Wister in 1927.
That year, the entire town was submerged under several feet of water, causing thousands of dollars damage to the businesses, homes, and transportation industry in town.
Poteau River Floods of 1927
Poteau River Floods Continue
While the 1927 flood was the most devastating in recorded history, that was not to be the end of things.
During the WPA era, most of the bridges over the Poteau River were upgraded to steel truss bridges. Many of which can still be seen today. At the time, the bridges were also raised in order to reach above the highest flood stages. While it helped significantly, the Poteau River continued to flood.
The next flood happened in June of 1935, and then again in 1943. While not as intensive as the '27 flood, both floods caused much damage to farmland and the surrounding area.
The Wister Lake Project
In 1938, the Flood Control Act was passed. The purpose of the act was to help curb the amount of flooding throughout the region by installing various flood control measures.
One of these was the Lake Wister Project. The Lake, one of the first of its kind in Oklahoma, was meant to collect water from the Poteau River and help regulate it. During times of heavy rains, the lake would fill and water would be let out at a measured pace through the Wister Dam. The project was started in April of 1947 and wasn't completed until May of 1949.
The project was a big success. For nearly 20 years, the lake helped control flooding throughout the region. That is, until 1968.
Poteau River Flooding of 1968: The Highest Level Since 1935
One of the last devastating floods came in May of 1968. This article from The Oklahoman provides the most accurate information on the flood:
The second greatest flood in the history of the middle and lower portions of the Poteau River basin is raging through a wide section of eastern Oklahoma.
While high waters were receding Tuesday night at Wister, upstream from Poteau, the river is expected to crest early Wednesday at Panama, 14 miles downstream from Poteau, at 18 feet above flood stage.
The crest at Panama is expected to be 42 feet. Flood stage there is 24 feet, a spokesman for the River Forecast Center in Tulsa Said. The highest known previous stage in history at Panama was 44.6 feet in June, 1935, as determined by high water marks.
Most of the flooding at Panama Tuesday night was over crop land and pasture land. Only a few small buildings had been damaged. Livestock had been evacuated to higher ground. Townsmen are not leaving.
Despite the forecast of water rising 18 feet above flood stage early Wednesday, Panama may escape serious damage. The river is a considerable distance from the town.
Extent of damage may depend on the weather. Skies were somewhat ominous Tuesday night. More rain could send the flood stage higher than expected.
Monday and Tuesday’s flood in Wister raged through 81 homes and damaged nearly all of the business firms in the town of about 1,200 persons.
Townspeople, national guardsmen, Red Cross workers and volunteers from other towns in the area worked Tuesday to clean up.
Two representatives of the U.S. Small Business Administration in Oklahoma City visited Wister Tuesday afternoon with Jay Daley, manager of the Poteau Chamber of Commerce and a member of a state citizens’ advisory board to the SBA.
A representative of the SBA, who said he has appraised flood damage in many areas, estimated the damage to Wister at $500,000. Daley said he is to meet Wednesday in Oklahoma City with SBA officials to discuss the possibility of relocating Wister and a portion of US-271 in the Wister area to higher ground.
Daley said federal and state highway officials have talked about plans to move the highway to keep it out of the path of flood waters.
“We want to see if they can do it immediately, in this area,” Daley said.
US-271 between Poteau and Wister was closed a considerable time Monday night. S-59 was closed Monday night and Tuesday.
Daley said there is a possibility Wister residents can get federal loans so they can relocate their homes and businesses east of the present townsite. Wister was swept by a similar flood seven years ago.
In addition to closing the highways, the flood tore down electric power lines and demolished a service station south of town and moved a five-room frame house two blocks from its foundation.
Buildings directly in the path of the flood registered high water marks of eight to nine feet.
Electricity, gas and telephone services were off Tuesday and a chicken supper was held Tuesday night in a school building, with the food furnished by the Red Cross.
In Main Street buildings, people swept and hosed muddy water from their businesses. In residential areas farther from the flood, home owners set furniture, bedding and mattresses in the sun to dry while using hoses, shovels and brooms to clear water from their homes.
After traffic was prohibited from the main street, furnishings from an automobile supply center, a dry goods, grocery and drug stores were moved into the street so muddy water could be hosed off them.
Chairs and hair dryers from a beauty shop sat on the sidewalk in front of the business. Furnishings from the Wister First State Bank were moved into the second story of the bank building and into a home, said Mrs. H. T. Harris, president.
“I don’t look like a bank president today,” she said, pointing to the knee-length slacks, flowered blouse and large straw hat she was wearing.
Everybody in town was in work clothes. Everybody had wet, muddy feet and most had wet, muddy clothes.
Mrs. Harris and a friend were talking about the town’s condition and the friend started to cry.
“Don’t cry now, “Mrs. Harris said, “it could be worse.”
Water Level Lowered in Lake Wister
Following the great Wister flood of 1968, the U.S. Corps of Engineers decided to lower the water levels in Lake Wister. This, in combination with modern control methods, has helped to ensure that the types of floods previously seen on the Poteau River don't happen again. While there are times where the lake levels will rise significantly, the area has not seen flood levels such as have happened in the past.
Visiting the Area
Visitors to the area today can visit many of the places mentioned in this article.
The WPA Bridge located on the old highway can still be visited. Although it is no longer in use, it is still accessible to visitors traveling north out of Poteau along Old Highway 112. There is a public pull-off from the main road where visitors can walk the old bridge and see where the old ferry landing once was.
Just outside of Wister is Wister Lake. The State Park office can provide further information on the lake, while the U.S. Corps of Engineers office located near the dam control building can provide further historic information.
Information for this article is derived from climatology data, newspapers, and in-person interviews of local residents.
© 2019 Eric Standridge
Virginia Allain from Central Florida on April 14, 2020:
What shocking damage the flood caused. Thanks for writing about it.
Liz Westwood from UK on May 21, 2019:
This is a well-documented historical article with great illustrations.